Winter has come and gone. For Hearts — the players, the supporters and particularly the new head coach — it’s been a particularly harsh one.
A lot has changed since Ian Cathro succeeded Robbie Neilson in the Tynecastle hot seat. Back then, a 2–0 win over Rangers in Neilson’s last game left us sitting pretty in second place; only a few months later, we find ourselves clinging onto fourth place, closer in points to the teams below us than those we were hoping to compete with further up the table.
To the uninitiated, this would look like somewhat of a spectacular collapse, given how positive it all looked in the immediate aftermath of that win over Mark Warburton’s side, and in many respects it is. At the time, the general consensus was that whoever succeeded Robbie Neilson would inherit an embarrassment of riches, an exciting squad with burgeoning potential. That Wednesday night in November certainly suggested as much, and yet it was a performance seldom seen in the preceding months of the season and very rarely since.
There have, of course, been mitigating circumstances. It was apparent in the latter stages of Neilson’s tenure that this was an imbalanced squad struggling to perform consistently. The January transfer window gave Cathro an early opportunity to set about moulding the team in his own image, bringing in a total of nine new players, which may have seemed a little excessive in the middle of a season, but was necessitated by player departures (some more unexpected than others) and long-term injuries to key personnel (Paterson, Souttar).
In many ways, the 2016/17 season has felt like two “mini seasons” and prior to our Scottish Cup tie away to Raith Rovers, it felt as though we were embarking on the second of those. I tweeted about there being a “first day of the season” vibe to the game: an influx of new signings, a relatively new head coach looking to impart new ideas and a newly-expectant support hoping to see the campaign re-ignited.
That hope, however, has since faded. Despite a seemingly sharp upturn in fortunes in early February against Rangers and Motherwell, when Hearts scored seven and conceded only once, performances appear to have reverted to the pre-January mean. Uninspiring home draws against Hibs and Inverness were put down to the state of the Tynecastle pitch, which the Hearts board immediately sought to rectify, though the gutless nature of our defeat to Hibs in the cup replay dispelled any notion that Hearts’ poor performances were simply a by-product of shoddy turf.
Their hunger and desire called into question, having been thoroughly outfought on the Easter Road surface, the players spoke and tweeted at length about wanting to make amends. We all expected an instant reaction, but subsequent league defeats at the hands of bottom six sides like Partick Thistle and Ross County have done little to quell supporters’ anger towards a group of players they view as indifferent to the badge.
Unsurprisingly, there are also question marks over Cathro himself. Many of the Hearts supporters who welcomed him as a refreshing, innovative appointment back in November already have their doubts and some have turned altogether. The incumbent head coach need only consult his predecessor on how difficult it is to win back the Gorgie faithful after a spiritless defeat to Hibs: a mere 15 games into his tenure, with only four wins and lacking the kind of credit in the bank that Neilson accumulated during the rip-roaring Championship season, Cathro faces a far rougher road to reparation.
Many supporters feel it’s a road the club can ill-afford to let him travel and want him removed from his position now. It may pain those supporters, but the club is invested in Cathro and — no longer being privy to the kind of snap judgements we witnessed during the Romanov era when managerial appointments were ten-a-penny — will give him time to at least try and make this work.
And why shouldn’t they, when the alternative is to simply revert to type and re-join a managerial merry-go-round that sees perennial flops like Mark McGhee immediately linked with one Scottish club after being fired by another?
The club has stated on numerous occasions that long-term stability is paramount and changing managers in response to every poor run of form is not the way to achieve that. In an interview I saw on BT Sport prior to yesterday’s Liverpool-Arsenal game, Arsene Wenger (no stranger to supporter unrest) said something which struck a chord.
“We live in a society that doesn’t accept disappointment any more, or any bad results. If that is the consequence of society, that it always wants something new, then you’ll have to change the manager every week and we’ll see where those clubs go. I believe that people who are capable of leading a club, to get a club to the next level, are very important because it’s very difficult. To win the next game is, of course, very important, but I believe as well that any organisation without any long-term plan, without any deeper values, without any build of strength inside the club, goes nowhere.”
For a lot of clubs in Scotland and England, it’s a theory that should resonate. Hibs fans will testify to that, having seen their club go through six managers in their gradual eight-year downward spiral into the Championship. In England, Sunderland are currently on their fifth manager in the four years since Martin O’Neill left and yet have found themselves battling relegation on a yearly basis, finishing lower each season and looking odds-on favourites to finally plummet this year.
Hearts, by contrast, want to build something more sustainable and see Cathro and Austin MacPhee as key cogs in that process. When such an approach deviates from the norm, there are always going to be dissenting voices, and in Cathro’s case they have been heavily influenced by media outlets who are seemingly desperate to see him fail.
The reaction to Cathro’s post-match interview in Kirkcaldy for example (as poor an interview as it was) was particularly illustrative of that. For the most part, Cathro is an engaging person to listen to, a manager who speaks about his profession with intelligence and passion and who doesn’t resort to the same tired clichés his managerial counterparts churn out week after week. It says a lot about Scottish football when one poor interview from a young, up-and-coming manager in the heat of the moment, after a disappointing draw, was seen as more worthy of media ridicule than a middle-aged man trotting out the same sentence he said the previous week, or less defensible than the aforementioned McGhee’s mobile meltdown in the Pittodrie stands.
Instead, it suggests a desperation to magnify Cathro’s every slip-up, as if to feed this notion that he is out of his depth and incapable of inspiring a squad that seems to care little for him or the club, claims that have been refuted on numerous occasions by members of the Hearts squad, most recently by Arnaud Djoum:
“For me, I am with the manager because the way he speaks about football is good and he wants everybody to enjoy football. The results are not there at the moment but if you see the Ross County game, the way we moved the ball and created chances, we dominated the game but we have had things go against us. The gaffer showed the way we play is very good and I like the way he wants us to play, so we just have to continue to work hard in training and get better. He knows football really well, he knows what he is doing and he is a really smart guy. It is small details that we focus on so I can say to the fans that he knows what he is doing with us.”
So why do we find ourselves in this rut? Personally, I don’t think it’s because the players aren’t playing for Cathro, as there have certainly been signs throughout the past 15 games that they buy into his ideology and want to play his way. I also don’t believe it’s a case of the players “not caring” about the club. What I believe it boils down to is a lack of mental fortitude in some players (to cope with adversity), a lack of ability in others (to execute Cathro’s preferred style) and their general lack of faith in each other as a unit.
Of course, those problems are still largely the head coach’s responsibility and (although this campaign has been all but written off) those of us who have not yet written Ian Cathro off will be hoping he can use the time he has between now and next season to fully address them.
Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on March 5, 2017.